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Archive for May, 2011

Things fall apart

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

There are lots of physical phenomena that arise from changes in temperature. High-temperature environments are high-energy environments. That energy goes into the kinetic energy of particles. Perhaps the most common manifestation of this is evaporation — when you set a liquid out on a hot day, the molecules gain thermal energy, and some of them gain enough energy to overcome the attractive forces of the other molecules in the liquid; those molecules then float away into the air.

You can see similar phenomena at the atomic level and below. There, binding energies of particles tend to be bigger, and thus it takes more thermal energy to separate the bound states. For instance, at a temperature of about 158,000 degrees above absolute zero (could someone check my math on that?), electrons in hydrogen atoms will gain enough energy for them to separate from the their nuclei. Under such conditions, atoms don’t really exist anymore; you just have a “plasma” of electrons and protons. And we imagine that the early universe, shortly after the Big Bang, was so hot that protons didn’t exist; the quarks and gluons had enough thermal energy to keep from being bound together into hadrons.

A new result from CMS shows just this kind of phenomenon. The upsilon particle is a bound state of a bottom and anti-bottom quark, much like a hydrogen atom is a bound state of an electron and proton. In the ground state of the upsilon, the two particles are pretty tightly bound and require a lot of energy to separate. But the upsilon, like hydrogen, has a number of higher-energy bound states, in which the quarks have greater kinetic energy, and thus are easier to separate. A bit more thermal energy, a few hundred MeV, and these excited upsilon states should just fall apart.

This is what CMS observes. In proton-proton collisions, the excited upsilon states are clearly visible. But in lead-lead collisions, when there is a lot more ambient energy due to all of the colliding nuclei, the excited states begin to disappear. Actually, all of the upsilon states are suppressed, but the excited states are even more so, by about a factor of three, which indicates that the more energetic states are more sensitive to the increased temperature. It’s a pretty neat trick, and the first time that it’s been observed in bound states of bottom quarks.

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Antineutrino data from MiniBooNE show the region of oscillation parameter space that is allowed at 90 percent confidence level (solid blue curve)." These results were consistent with findings from LSND, and were among the findings discussed at the Short-Baseline Neutrino Workshop that took place at Fermilab last week. Click on image to see larger version.

This article first appeared in Fermilab Today May 19.

When exciting results are popping up all over the place, it calls for bringing the best minds together from around the world to discuss the findings and make plans for the future. That’s precisely what happened at the Short-Baseline Neutrino Workshop 2011, which took place May 12-14 at Fermilab. More than 100 people from 44 institutions attended.

Neutrinos are a million times lighter than an electron and are electrically neutral, which allows them to pass through matter unaffected, making them difficult to detect. Neutrinos exist in three flavors: muon, electron and tau, and have the ability to transform from one flavor into another, a process known as oscillation.

The purpose of various short-baseline neutrino experiments is to explore questions about neutrinos that travel over a relatively short distance.

Recently, a number of tantalizing results have sprung up from both short and long baseline experiments, which seem to suggest that neutrino oscillations occur under circumstances that were previously believed to not allow them, said Bill Louis, physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and workshop co-organizer.

“Even if just one of these results is correct, it may possibly have a profound impact on our understanding of particle and nuclear physics,” Louis said.

Learning more about this area of physics is a key part of Fermilab’s future.

A few months after the Tevatron shuts down, there will be an 11-month period during which scientists will improve on proton sources to better serve experiments at the Intensity Frontier, including neutrino, kaon and muon programs, said Fermilab Deputy Director Young-Kee Kim. Once the complex comes back online, Fermilab plans to resume operation of neutrino beams using both 120 GeV and 8 GeV protons on the neutrino-production targets.

The MiniBooNE detector, shown above, was one project at the recent Short-Baseline Neutrino Workshop that presented interesting results. Photo: MiniBooNE collaboration.

Antineutrino data from MiniBooNE show the region of oscillation parameter space that is allowed at 90 percent confidence level (solid blue curve).” These results were consistent with findings from LSND, and were among the findings discussed at the Short-Baseline Neutrino Workshop that took place at Fermilab last week.
In their lectures, Steve Holmes, project manager for the proposed Project X, and Chris Polly, acting project manager for the future muon g-2 experiment at Fermilab, touched on the topic of the proposed beamlines. Kim further discussed future plans and solicited attendee feedback.

The ensuing discussions yielded a consensus amongst workshop attendees: The beamlines have tremendous potential, but measures will need to be taken to minimize background signals caused by cosmic radiation. Some possibilities include reusing or repurposing already existing equipment, or building additional components, which could result in a high-intensity neutrino beam that would be suitable for future experiments.

Workshop speakers also touched on what can be done in the interim between now and Project X. Among these speakers were: Geoffrey Mills (LANL), who discussed the potential of BooNE, the two-detector version of MiniBooNE; Roxanne Guenette (Yale University), who presented an overview of liquid argon detector applications in the MiniBooNE beamline; and Ryan Patterson (CalTech) and John Cooper (Fermilab), who spoke on what could be accomplished with a third NOvA detector.

See a full list of presenters online.

Louis was most impressed by the quality and diversity of the talks that touched on both experimental and theoretical issues and covered the gamut of neutrino topics.

“The talks were uniformly excellent,” Louis said. “It was just great hearing all of the different possibilities and plans for future neutrino experiments.”

— Christine Herman

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Supersolid. 超固体。

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

「超」がつくものは凄いに決まっている.理研のプレスリリースをtwitterで知ったのは、もう一ヶ月ほど前になる.そこには「超固体」の文字が踊っていた.理研の河野低温物理研究室.「超固体は存在する

f:id:D-brane:20110523200334j:image:w200:right

で、早速河野さんにセミナーをお願いしたところ、快諾してくださった.今日の午後、河野さんを囲んで研究室セミナーが始まった.QCDの様々な相を研究している人間にとって、物性で出現する奇特な相のことを学んでおいて損は無いはず.そういう、かなり軽い興味から入ったのだが、そう、興味なんて軽いところからでいいのだ.超、がつくものは、超弦理論からなんから全部知っておきたい、そんなミーハーな興味でもいいのだ.

超固体という概念は、1970年にA.J.Leggett(2003年ノーベル物理学賞)が考えたものらしい.彼の論文”Can a Solid Be Superfluid?” がその論文の新奇さを物語る.レゲットの予言から40年、その実験的存在に決着がつきつつある.固体なのに超流動成分を持つ、超固体.その正体は未だ未解明だ.河野さんのグループの研究が、実験的決着をつけるのだろうか?...それにしても、理研研究本館一階に、そんな超固体を目指してあんな速さで検出器ごとぐるぐる回っている装置があるとは!

今日は、「超」がつく物理現象を、また一つ学んだ.次は?

 

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Derailed Schedules

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

There is something every experimental particle physicist has to learn sooner or later: Even if there is a detailed schedule, always stay flexible! This is especially true when you are working at test beam facilities. I learned this during my very first weeks as a particle physicists more than a decade ago, while I was still an undergrad and just started to work in a research group a bit besides my studies. The time slot for the first beam time I participated in shifted several times, due to schedule changes and accelerator problems. Back then, I did not care: When things were “go”, we loaded our stuff into the car and drove to CERN.

But of course the resulting life style, the unwillingness (or even inability) to plan things like vacations and days off is something that annoys in particular partners and family to no end. Here, my wife is no exception. In particular since she has to plan her vacations six to twelve months in advance. She is working as a pharmacist, and there always has to be one in the pharmacy whenever it is open, requiring quite rigid personnel planning. That very often is incompatible with my schedule (or lack of schedule, for that matter).

My students are now also learning this: Last week, we were supposed to take data at the CERN SPS. But due to the failure of motors on so-called TAX (Target Absorbers) blocks, the start of beam operations in the test areas at the SPS is delayed by more than a month, completely derailing our well thought-out test beam plans.

The TAX blocks are massive pieces of iron, aluminum and copper, which can be moved in and out of the particle beams. They are important components, since they can block beam to enter certain areas of the experimental hall, and are used to control the size of the particle beams. They are key pieces for the overall accelerator safety system, so without them working properly, no experiments can take place. And repairing the motors is a tricky procedure: Since the TAX blocks absorb high fluxes of beam particles, they are highly radioactive, requiring careful planning of any work being carried out to limit the exposure of the technicians performing the work. So everything has to be diagnosed and understood before people go in and do something. It is also important that the real reason for the failure is understood, to avoid it from happening again. If a motor fails again after beam has started, repairs will not be possible for several months, which would completely stop test beam experiments for this year.

Lars, one of my PhD students, during the installation of our timing experiment in the CALICE Tungsten HCAL at the CERN SPS: The only missing piece now is beam.

At the moment it is unclear how the experimental schedule will develop – Also the plans for the later part of the year will probably be rearranged, but before the accelerator is back in operation, everything is speculation. The CALICE Tungsten HCAL is fully ready for beam already, and last week, right before the CALICE collaboration meeting at CERN, my students also installed our timing experiment in the experimental hall. So all we now need is beam time… And that might come at short notice, and at other times than originally anticipated. I guess quite a bit of flexibility will be needed over the summer!

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Editor’s note: For those who missed it, here’s “So You Want to Discover a New Particle (Pt. 1)

Hi, Readers!

I went away for a bit to pursue some other extra-curriculars, but now I’m back — and the blog has a new home! Perhaps a new audience as well. Since this (my first) Quantum Diaries post is actually the second part in a series, and I am a shamefully sporadic poster, I suppose I owe you a synopsis:

• The Standard Model is boring, but new particles are not.
• If you’d like to discover a new particle, theorists have conveniently provided you with an expansive menu of possibilities.
• Choose your particle with great care. This involves physics-, politics-, and plushy-based considerations.

So, let’s assume you’ve done some research, sent some emails, formed (or joined) a research group, and selected the new particle you’d like to discover. Congrats. Now what? Well, your particle hasn’t been found yet probably because… it isn’t easy to find. 🙂 There could be multiple reasons for this:

• It has a tiny production cross-section (the LHC produces it only once in a blue moon, as opposed to millions of times per second).
• It looks like other, already-discovered particles, so it blends right in with the (so boring!) Standard Model.
• It is produced and/or decays in such a way that our particle detectors have a tough time seeing it and measuring its properties.
• It is shielded from present detection by a future version of itself, traveling back in time to thwart your research plans (see here or here).

With the notable exception of that last one, the practical consequence is that you’re essentially looking for a needle in a haystack. Only sometimes the needle looks an awful lot like hay. And in some cases, the needle could actually be lying outside the haystack, in a place you aren’t even looking. We call this hay “background”; the needle, “signal.” Before you can even think about looking for your needle of interest, you first have to get to know the hay.

In general, the bulk of your background is made up of Standard Model processes that resemble your signal but are produced far more copiously. As an added complication, this can be split into two groups: “physics” backgrounds, which actually involve the same “final state” particles as your signal  — that is, those that are measured by the detector and then used to reconstruct the event; and “instrumental” backgrounds, which involve a different final state that is mis-measured by the detector such that it “fakes” looking like your signal. To make matters worse, it’s possible that non-Standard Model (new!) particles similar to your own could interfere with your analysis, adding an entirely theoretical component to your total background. Insidious! You must be aware that yours isn’t necessarily the only needle in this haystack.

(… As is often the case, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. :))

Assuming you did the research before choosing your particle, you already know the main backgrounds for your signal. Great! Now to study these background processes in a systematic, controlled manner, we use what are called “Monte Carlo” (MC) simulations, aka “fake data.” Although I won’t go into detail about how the MC is generated, I will say that it’s a sophisticated simulation representing our best guess at how the data should look based on both theoretical and experimental constraints. It involves random numbers, probability distributions, lots of computing power, and magic.

Most likely your backgrounds have already been simulated, and all you need to do is get them. Do so. Practically speaking, this is person- and experiment-specific, so I offer no details, but let’s just assume that you now have access to the MC simulated datasets for your main backgrounds — and so the fun can begin! Except it is now 2am, and my workweek is about to start. Nuts!

Next time: Examining your simulated haystack, comparing it to your simulated needle, and finding ways to effectively separate the two with an algorithmic baler.

– Burton

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Thanks, Sasha!

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

Last week, a typically unassuming email from BBC radio producer Sasha Feachem landed in my inbox and made my day. Sasha’s programme, The Infinite Monkey Cage, presented by celebrity physicist (now there’s pair of words you don’t often see together) Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince had just won a gold medal for the best speech programme at the Sony awards, the UK’s most prestigious awards for radio. That doesn’t happen every day. It has not happened, in fact, for 15 years: the last time that a science programme took the top prize in any category. Congratulations Sasha and all the monkey cage team. It’s a great achievement.

What’s even better, though, is that this is not a one off, but part of a trend. Science is becoming increasingly fashionable everywhere. At last year’s International Conference for Particle Physics in Paris, a public event packed one of the city’s largest theatres to the rafters. In Germany, the Weltmaschine exhibitions and events have been keeping physicists busy in their spare time. Artists of all kinds come knocking at CERN’s doors. I’m writing this at 36000 feet on my way to London, where among other things I’ll be attending a launch for Charles Jencks’ latest book – the Universe in Landscape, which features a chapter about CERN – and visiting a London-based German filmmaker who’s inspired to make a movie featuring CERN. Angels and Demons was just the start. Austria’s Ars Electronica festival this year revolves around science, with CERN in a leading role, and our Director General will be speaking at the Hay festival of literature and the arts. Oh, and before I leave London, I must remember to pick up a copy of Hells Bells, a new children’s book inspired by the LHC. After watching the children’s TV series, The Sparticle Mystery, certain younger members of my household have developed an appetite for science-based fiction (even if the science is a little flaky to say the least). Some 300000 people now follow CERN on twitter and the slightest whisper of news from the LHC brings the world’s media to our doors. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Science is the new cool. Let’s keep it that way.

It matters that people are talking about science. And it’s great that the LHC is helping to put science on the popular agenda. In the modern era, science increasingly underpins everything we do; yet there’s been a growing trend towards popular apathy and even hostility to science. When we’re all increasingly having to make science based decisions, that is not a healthy state of affairs. You care about the climate, but how do you understand what’s really going on? You can’t live without your mobile phone, but is it bad for your health? You don’t want your kids to get measles, mumps or rubella, but wasn’t someone saying that the vaccine is dangerous? Science needs to reengage with society so that people are better equipped to deal with questions such as these.

But let’s get back to Sasha. I never throw emails away, so I’ve still got the first one she sent me, dated 13 September 2006. It spoke of a most unfeasible plan for radio 4 to devote a full day of programming to particle physics, something so totally unprecedented that it would obviously never happen. Yet that email led to a meeting of minds at CERN between our Director General and Radio 4’s Controller, and ultimately to radio 4’s big bang day. Little did we know at the time, but that was not a one off. It was an early part of a trend for science to reengage with society. Thanks, Sasha!

James Gillies

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This article ran in Fermilab Today May 20.

A new analysis using combined MiniBooNE and SciBooNE data looked for disappearing muon neutrinos building on a MiniBooNE study from 2009.

A new analysis using combined MiniBooNE and SciBooNE data looked for disappearing muon neutrinos building on a MiniBooNE study from 2009.

Kendall Mahn, TRIUMF; and Yasuhiro Nakajima, Kyoto University; were among the experimenters who performed this analysis.
When it comes to neutrinos, it’s best to expect the unexpected.

Previous Results of the Week have showcased a surprising difference between MiniBooNE electron neutrino appearance and electron antineutrino appearance results. In this special result, we present an analysis done by combining MiniBooNE and SciBooNE data to improve our understanding of a MiniBooNE analysis from 2009.

Previously, MiniBooNE looked for an excess of electron neutrino events in a muon neutrino beam over a short distance (0.5 km). Experimenters then conducted the same search using antineutrinos. While the tests were the same, the results were surprisingly different. The neutrino data is consistent with background, but the antineutrino data shows an excess of events consistent with the controversial 1990 results from the Liquid Scintillator Neutrino Detector experiment at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

If this observed difference is due to new physics, the new physics must be rather exotic. The most common explanation for these results uses the idea of sterile neutrinos, which physicists believe are neutrinos that do not have charged partners. Collaborators believe that as the muon neutrino travels, it will sometimes convert into a sterile neutrino, which then would convert into an electron neutrino. We expect that the sterile neutrino is only detectable from this reaction.

If sterile neutrinos exist, then the muon neutrinos should disappear, that is, some of the muon neutrinos will have converted to undetectable sterile neutrinos and the rate of muon neutrinos will be lower than we expect. Let’s say the muon neutrinos constitute a pie before baking. Disappearance is characterized by a missing slice of this pie, as some of the muon neutrinos have changed into sterile neutrinos, which we can’t see.

A previous search for the disappearance of muon neutrinos and muon antineutrinos two years ago compared MiniBooNE data to the predicted number of events at the detector. This is like counting the ingredients and examining the empty pie tin before baking, and then estimating the total pie weight and size after baking without looking at it directly.

Of course, this method is limited by our understanding of the initial number of neutrinos that reach MiniBooNE and the specifics of how they interact, that is, how well we know the ingredients beforehand .

Now, MiniBooNE has teamed up with the SciBooNE experiment to perform an improved analysis on the disappearance of muon neutrinos. SciBooNE, a dedicated cross section experiment shares the same neutrino target and flux as MiniBooNE, but was located in the same neutrino beam closer to the neutrino source. By adding the SciBooNE data to our analysis, we are able to measure the neutrino rate before the muon neutrinos disappear. This is like weighing the pie and inspecting it before baking, and is less dependent on our initial predictions.

The first joint venture of these two experiments observes no muon neutrino disappearance at 90 percent confidence level, which constrains models that require large amounts of disappearance. Our next step will be to look at muon antineutrino disappearance with both experiments, an important step to understanding the nature of new physics, if it exists.

Learn more

— Kendall Mahn and Yasuhiro Nakajima

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The NOvA Far Detector (red) and surface building 'placed' inside Soldier Field stadium in Chicago, for a sense of scale of the detector size. The Far Detector measures 51.2 feet wide by 51.2 feet high by 206.7 feet long, or 15.6 meters wide, 15.6 meters high and 63 meters long.

Let me set the scene for you. The NFL season has been cancelled so in an effort to raise money the Chicago Bears have rented out their Soldier Field stadium. The DOE obtained the lease and entrusted a host of physicists to build a particle detector inside the 61,500 seater.

 None of this is true of course (well the coming NFL season may be in a lockout) but it gives you a sense of scale of the NOvA experiment if you compare the size of one of its detectors, the Far Detector, to the football stadium.

The NOvA (NuMI Off-axis electron-neutrino [νe]Appearance) experiment is a neutrino oscillation experiment designed to search for muon-neutrino to electron-neutrino oscillations and is the flagship project for the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) Intensity Frontier initiative. NOvA is a two-detector experiment with the smallest of the two a 200 ton Near Detector at Fermilab and the second a 15 kiloton Far Detector situated 503 miles, or 810 kilometers away in Ash River, Minnesota.

The experiment proceeds with an intense beam of muon neutrinos from the NuMI (Neutrinos at the Main Injector) beam at Fermilab. The neutrinos are then directed to travel along a trajectory such that they can be observed by the Near and Far Detectors. The neutrinos that reach Ash River, on the Canadian border, are compared to the neutrinos detected by the Near Detector. We know that neutrinos ”oscillate” or change type as they travel which is why NOvA is searching for the number of neutrinos that have oscillated from muon neutrinos to electron neutrinos, hence electron neutrino appearance: essentially measuring how many electron neutrinos have appeared compared to what is detected at the Near Detector.

So what is so great about knowing that, you may ask. Well, in neutrino physics our understanding of neutrino oscillations is governed by the PMNS matrix – a mathematical description of the probability of the different neutrinos changing from one type to another.

There are six different parameters that are derived from the PMNS matrix. Firstly, you have the three mixing angles theta-13, theta-23 and theta-12. These are essentially the proportions of each of the three known types of neutrinos that combine to form each type like Neapolitan ice cream. For example, electron neutrinos make up the largest share of the mixing angle for the electron neutrino. Second, you have a CP-violating phase which is the breaking of particle-antiparticle (charge conjugation – C) and mirror (parity – P) symmetries . Lastly, you have any two of three mass-squared differences which measure the difference between the masses of the neutrino types. The true nature of these parameters is beyond the scope of this introductory blog but, in short, NOvA aims to make the first measurement of the mixing angle theta-13 and push the search for electron neutrino appearance beyond the current scientific community’s limits by more than an order of magnitude. For a non-zero theta-13, it is possible for NOvA to observe CP violation in neutrinos, which will help us understand why the universe has a matter-antimatter asymmetry, and to establish the neutrino mass ordering or ”hierarchy” of neutrino types from lightest to heaviest.

Before NOvA can make any physics measurements it needs two fully assembled and calibrated detectors, which basically means that we understand what our detector is telling us!

The detectors are totally active, segmented and deploy the technology of liquid scintillator (mineral oil plus 5 percent pseudocumene) contained in highly reflective, rigid PVC extrusion cells to detect neutrino interactions.

The charged particles produced by a neutrino interaction inside the detector cause the liquid scintillator to produce light that is captured by optical fibers and carried to light-sensitive detectors at one end of each cell. The Far Detector will consist of about 400,000 1.6 inch by 2.4 inch by 52.5 feet, or 4 centimeter by 6 centimeter by 16 meter, cells that require approximately 3.2 gallons, or 12 million liters, of scintillator and 8,078 miles, or 13,000 kilometers, of .07-centimeter, or 0.7-millimeter, optical fiber. That is roughly equivalent to having enough fiber to feed through the Earth from Fermilab, near Chicago, to Sydney, Australia! The Near Detector will have the same design but will only be about 1/200th as massive.

The Far Detector is under construction and will begin taking data in early 2013. Due to the segmented nature of the detectors, data can be collected as soon as a section of readout has been installed.

Event display of the first NuMI neutrino event observed by NOvA's NDOS detector. The colored squares are a representation of time and location of the hits recorded by the detector cells. Click on image to see a larger version.

The Near Detector eventually will sit underground at Fermilab in the NuMI beamline but a portion of it has been built as a prototype on the surface. This prototype detector, named NDOS, began running at Fermilab in November and registered its first neutrinos from the NuMI beam in December 2010. The full installation of NDOS was completed in March 2011, at which point the detector entered an ongoing commissioning phase. NDOS is fundamental to understanding the fabrication and assembly procedures to be used in the construction of the Near and Far Detectors as well as inferring detector response and fine-tuning data acquisition systems and event reconstruction algorithms.

This is only the beginning for NOvA and future blog entries will aim to expand on some of the details brushed over here (in particular the underlying physics) as well as provide an insight into the daily activities of NOvA physicists. Who knows, maybe sometime soon NOvA will be putting neutrino physics firmly in the spotlight! For now I leave you with a picture of an event topology display showing the first NuMI beam neutrino event observed by NOvA’s NDOS.

NOvA really is a super experiment!!

— Gavin S. Davies

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– by Matthew Tamsett, US LHC

As of last week I’ve moved to CERN for the summer. It’s great to be back, it’s so vibrant and full of life here. However, it’s also a very busy place, and a place where, if you’re not careful, you can lose yourself in an infinite sea of meetings.

When I first came to CERN, several years ago, I found myself falling into this trap. I tried to attend every meeting that was relevant to me, and simply found that I wasn’t spending the time I needed on my research. I then recognised that a balance needed to be struck somewhere.

As the CERN folk-law tells it; once upon a time a committee was formed at CERN to look into the optimisation of meetings (so we didn’t all get lost at sea). Several ideas were circulated, including a rather shocking proposal to ban all laptops from meetings. I don’t think this idea would have gone down very well.

As the rumour goes, the committee was eventually disbanded because they couldn’t find the time to meet.

This tenuously links to what I wanted to talk about in this post. That is the 1981 Horizon documentary entitled “The pleasure of finding things out“, about Richard Feynman.

Feynman was an excellent speaker and this well-made programme allows the great man to wax freely in his inimitable style. I very much encourage everyone to watch it.

Among the many thoughts that stand out to me from this (and there are lots), one is that an idea in formation is like a house of cards. The idea itself is made up of a precarious stack of individual points (or cards) and requires a long period of uninterrupted thought to complete. Just like the house of cards, a nascent idea can easily fall apart if you’re distracted.

His solution is to cultivate the “myth of irresponsibility”, that is the idea that he can’t be trusted to take on extra responsibilities and that he doesn’t care about these responsibilities or the students. Of course this a is complete fabrication, but as he points out, it does enable him to free up the time he needs to work.

This is not necessarily something I’d try personally, but maybe it’s a more realistic idea for the CERN committee to propose than the removal of laptops from auditoriums.

As well as being one of the most important physicists of modern times, Feynman is also widely acknowledged as being one of the great educators and by watching this documentary you really get a sense for why this was.

His passion for science, and for life, shines through. As well as healthy doses of self knowledge, disrespect for authority and doubt. Doubt, he says, is in incredibly important part of science. He points out that one must be very careful in checking ones experimental results and data, before rushing to any conclusions.

The documentary ends with Feynman saying “I think it’s much more interesting to live with not knowing, than to have answers that might be wrong”, and I completely agree.

CERN is an excellent forum for checking results. The very state of belonging to a collaboration of several thousand physicists means that there exists the capability to cross check each others results very thoroughly. It also gives us the opportunity to collectively achieve things which we couldn’t individually, thus enabling us to get the very best out of our detector and the LHC machine.

And inevitably this is where the meetings come in. In order to work well as a collaboration meetings are a necessity, and unfortunately bigger the collaboration becomes the more meetings seem to proliferate. As a result each of us ends up with less time to build our respective houses of cards. Although in the end, the process of collaboration means anything we do come up with, should be very well thought through and checked.

In conclusion, it’s good to be at CERN, despite all the meetings.

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Brains Don’t Last Forever

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

–by Nigel S. Lockyer, Director

The Prime Minister of Canada (who now has a majority government for the next four years) plans to emphasize among other things brain research. TRIUMF is already involved in brain research, especially Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and some aspects of addiction and depression. Our nuclear-medicine division supports and collaborates with a superb team of researchers at Pacific Parkinson’s Research Centre (based at UBC) and have done so for over 20 years. Recently it has expanded into Alzheimer’s. Neurodegenerative diseases are special in that none of them have cures or simple diagnostic processes. Major discoveries and progress are being made, thank goodness, but complete understanding, let alone cures, is elusive.

Behind all this rhetoric about the value of brain research is an age-old public policy question: fund new breakthroughs (i.e., brain research) or fund distribution & implementation of existing ones (i.e., build new, modern centres for the growing population of mentally diseased, ageing people). Not an easy choice.

Since my father has recently been admitted to a Long Term Care Facility in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, the difficulty of this choice has become acutely evident. His new facility is one where the doors are always locked, a necessary measure to protect the residents from themselves…many wander and would get lost or hurt off the grounds. About 75% are in wheelchairs with head and neck motion constrained, and the majority suffer from some form of dementia.

However, it is a pleasant and brightly lit place. For Mother’s Day they held a concert called “Rowdy Country Tunes” sung by a local guitarist (I am guessing he was 75 years young). It was mostly Elvis Presley tunes, and the auditorium looked from the back like a drive-in movie except it was wheelchairs parked wall-to-wall replacing the cars.

The staff and volunteers are totally dedicated in their attempts to provide a stimulating and nurturing environment for residents who struggle daily with tasks such as finding their own rooms, eating, controlling verbal outbursts, or even making eye contact. Simple games such as pushing a beach ball back and forth can be a challenge.

The most popular game it seems is trying to get out of the locked floor. The exit is always crowded with wheelchair escapees. The most often heard phrase is “How do I get out of here?” My dad told me recently that he can’t get out because he cannot get past all of the wheelchairs. I replied, “Yeah, Dad, the traffic is rough here.” However, if you open the door, expect a stampede! This game, they all seem to understand.

Each resident has a private or semi-private room. However, the great symmetry of the hallways and building, perhaps a good thing in physics, is not good for finding your room. When I was in my dad’s room, inevitably several residents would wander into his room and look shocked that we were in “their” room. All a part of the character of the place, all a part of what our brains and bodies do in the final chapters of our lives.

On the second evening of my recent visit, during the well-choreographed recreational time, I sat with my dad and about a dozen residents while they listened to country music (Hank Williams seems to appeal to this group) and played catch with the beach ball. I sat with this group for about an hour and then it was time to leave. One person was staring at me, since I was obviously (at least, I hope) not a full member of the club, and so I said, “Good night.” About 90% of the room replied with “Good night!” I was floored. They were all fully aware of my presence and wanted to connect with me. I had had no idea. It was quite a touching moment and I realized though they might all appear to be immobilized, or suffering from Alzheimer’s, they sometimes, maybe just sometimes, they just want to communicate. That is when you realize that these are the moments all family members wait for—those special times when there is a fleeting glimpse of the person they once were. That is what keeps us all going.

Health care of this type is highly people intensive and expensive. In my view, Canada does a good job in this area. Employees (and many volunteers) in these facilities are dedicated, caring, cheery, loving, and tender. It is really just amazing.

Physicists work on advanced medical technologies all the time, from PET scanners, medical isotopes, and accelerators for cancer therapy to MRI, contrast imaging, laser surgery, and so on. Yet I had to ask myself what we as a field could do to help these special old folks. My first thought was better technology—more breakthroughs, better tools, better understanding of the progress of ageing. But while this is necessary, there seems to be no substitute at the moment for personalized care….one on one for the people who really are there right now.

As a lab director, I often think about how politicians make decisions on what to fund: What events affect their inner priorities? My guess is that much of it is personal experience. Next time you see a politician, just think that it is they who have to choose between funding brain research or the multitude of long-term care facilities for our aging populations. It is not that easy to choose…help people now or potential help in the future…but we surely need more brain research.

A few people agree. Check out the cool building in Las Vegas by the Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. What is it? It’s the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, of course!

Frank Gehry designed Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health

Canadian architect Frank Gehry designed the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas

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